America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding; by Robert R. Reilly; Ignatius Press; 384 pp., $27.95
Few observers of America today would doubt that the republic is in crisis. The crisis stems from a growing skepticism over the truth and validity of the principles of the American founding.
For the political left to question the founding is nothing new. Ever since historian Charles A. Beard argued that the Founding Fathers were motivated by self-interest alone, most figures on the left have associated the founding with the ruling class prerogatives of the commercial elite.
What is new in the American experience are voices from the political right who have similarly dismissed the founding as an exercise in crude bourgeois ideology. Conservatives such as Patrick Deneen, Michael Hanby, Rod Dreher, and others have put the founders “on trial” for causing the social and moral ills that afflict America today.
This attack from the right has inspired Robert R. Reilly, in his new book America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, to explain why the principles at the core of America’s founding are still worth defending. In a separate article, Reilly takes aim at Deneen’s focus on the “Hobbesian” nature of the founding, writing, “Since he thinks the regime is only about self-preservation and the promotion of private differences, why should anyone serve it?”
More specifically, if enough pious Americans are convinced that the founding led directly to the excesses of the sexual revolution—Reilly lists abortion, pornography, and same-sex marriage—will they give up on America? “If Christians come to believe that America is congenitally their enemy, they will cease to defend it and join in its destruction for their own reasons,” Reilly writes.
Of course, any successful defense of the founding requires a rigorous and accurate understanding of what its principles mean. Reilly is not the first conservative philosopher to attempt, in his words, to “defend the Founding and show how deeply the American Proposition was rooted in the Judeo-Christian and natural law tradition.” However, his impressive erudition and eloquent prose result in a study that reads like a defense of Western civilization, not just America’s place within it.
Consistent with this ambitious aim, Reilly is determined to demonstrate a key paradox: the roots of the American founding as well as the threats to its principles date all the way back to the Middle Ages. In the process of demonstrating this thesis, however, Reilly presents a grand narrative that does not cohere well with the actual history of the West.
Like other conservative Catholic intellectuals, Reilly contends that the founding’s true origins lie within the confluence of three traditions—Athens, Jerusalem, and Rome.
Athens—meaning Greek philosophy—taught the “existence of universal truth, a rational universe ordered by a divine intellect,” and “the primacy of reason in man’s moral life,” Reilly writes.
Jerusalem—meaning the Bible—revealed the truth of “monotheism, creation ex nihilo, the fundamental goodness and reliability of creation, man made in the imago Dei (image of God), and salvation history.”
Rome—meaning Christianity—universalized “the truths of Judaism” and the Incarnation as well as enabling the “de-divinization” of nature, “the separation of the sacred from the secular, and the recognition of the inviolability of the individual person.”
This civilizational triad is crucial to Reilly’s purpose of demonstrating, contra Deneen and others, that the Founders were influenced by traditions preceding early modern materialism and hedonism.
If Reilly is correct, America is impossible to understand or defend without natural law, which is the culmination of these three traditions. To this end, he provides some evidence that authors who defended natural law theory, such as Thomas Aquinas in the medieval era and more modern authors such as Richard Hooker, Robert Cardinal Bellarmine, Francisco Suárez, and Algernon Sidney, also influenced the founders’ idea of “Nature’s God.”
Although Reilly carefully avoids the claim that America’s founding was Catholic in nature, he credits the medieval tradition with bringing into being two principles that are pivotal to America: the separation of church and state—the “dual sovereignties”—and the equality of all human beings before God and the law. Contrary to the interpretations of Deneen and others, America’s founders were committed to a “common good” that is completely at odds with Hobbesian individualism. Natural law also taught that all legitimate political orders are based on popular consent. Political absolutism—absolute monarchy—was contrary to this law.
Just as one medieval tradition inspired America, another one threatens its survival. According to Reilly, the nominalism of William of Ockham, along with the theology of voluntarism, teaches the dangerous notion that the will, not reason or nature, is the guiding force of the universe.
The nominalist denial that there is a fixed human nature, or essence, dovetails with the voluntarist position that God rules by sheer will, not reason. The consequences of this rebellion against Aristotelian teleology and natural law were massive. Luther advanced this philosophical theology by presenting God as a being whose will governs arbitrarily and tyrannically. Hobbes secularized the nominalist-voluntarist synthesis by insisting that Leviathan—absolute monarchy—must govern in the same way.
Armed with the natural law tradition that Hooker and others articulated, Reilly contends that the American founders soundly rejected the political absolutism that Hobbes embraced. Reilly also interprets the philosophy of John Locke, despite his nominalist and voluntarist tendencies, as in accord with the natural law tradition.
Reilly presents a fascinating historical narrative of Western civilization. Yet he does not succeed in demonstrating that a philosophy or theology of the will—or freedom—constitutes the clear and present danger he makes it out to be. In fact, it is hard to imagine Western civilization without a robust idea of the will, even before the rise of nominalism and voluntarism.
For example, Reilly’s portrayal of St. Augustine as a defender of natural law ignores the pivotal fact that this great Christian theologian did more to emphasize the primacy of the will than any intellectual figure before him. In The City of God, Augustine argues that our will, which is God-given, defines our humanity. God also exercised His will in creating humanity. If we human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, we have no choice but to exercise our will. Our will is so powerful that only God, not natural reason, can save us from our sins.
Yet none of this suggested to Augustine that the primacy of the will is an excuse for arbitrary or capricious behavior. If anything, the fact that we have a will eliminates any possible evasion of responsibility for our sins. Nature should be neither credited nor blamed for human actions. Our faults lie within ourselves. The idolatry that Augustine exposes in the civitas terrena (earthly city) is an act of will, not nature.
Augustine was building on a biblical tradition that, by Reilly’s own admission, reveals the nature of freedom. As he ably shows, Greco-Roman paganism lacked a true concept of freedom. The Book of Genesis, “unlike the ancient cosmologies,” revealed that “evil does not derive from God, from an evil demiurge, or from matter, but from man’s free will.”
The implications of this revelation are enormous. Only a God of will could bless, but also curse, humanity with the burden of freedom. This gift of freedom enables God to demand man’s obedience to His covenant. Simply put, the Bible eradicated the pagan cosmology that was based on fate and the cyclical movement of fortune and misfortune, impersonal cosmic forces that left no room for freedom.
The implications of the biblical narrative pose a large problem for Reilly’s explanation of what Western civilization truly represents. His synthesis of Athens, Jerusalem, and Rome falls apart as soon as the uniquely biblical origins of modern freedom are properly understood. Although Reilly at times insists that Greek philosophy prepared the way for the triumph of Christianity, he fails to acknowledge that fatalism and the metaphysics of cyclical time are just as evident within the works of Plato and Aristotle as they are in ancient cosmologies. Accordingly, he offers no explanation as to how the Greek philosophical tradition, which in his view is devoid of a proper idea of freedom, somehow laid the groundwork for other related ideas—namely, popular consent, constitutional democracy, and individual freedom.
Given Reilly’s emphasis on the rise of self-government in the West, it is also astounding that he is silent on the Enlightenment philosopher Baruch Spinoza, whose Theological-Political Treatise (1670) is the first systematic defense of modern democratic sovereignty. Unlike his medieval predecessors, Spinoza looked to the Hebrew Bible, not Aristotelian philosophy, as the true foundation of democracy precisely because the God of Jerusalem—as opposed to Aristotle’s unmoved mover—treats all human beings as free and equal. Spinoza accomplished this philosophical feat without recourse to Greco-Roman or medieval philosophy, which he believed lacked an idea of what Reilly calls “the overflowing, unconditional love of God for man.”
Reilly also gives short shrift to the Reformation’s contribution to Western civilization, including to America. Although Reilly ably discusses Protestants who defended the natural law tradition—such as Hooker and Sidney—he is silent on the Protestant traditions that reject naïve versions of “free will” without resorting to Thomism. Given his faulting of nominalism as the culprit for Protestant absolutism, he is at a loss to account for Catholic absolutism, which nominalism did not influence.
Reilly also cannot explain why stable constitutional governments first emerged only in Protestant nations such as England and Holland, rather than in Catholic ones. Shockingly, Reilly mentions Calvinism only once (in a footnote!) to contrast this tradition with Lutheran political absolutism.
Calvinism, despite its allusions to predestination, ultimately teaches that human beings must use their freedom to work hard and do good works in this fallen world, all in service to God. It is hard to understand the American Revolution, the exploration of the American West, or the conquest of the continent without taking into account the Calvinist idea of ordered liberty. Even Reilly admits: “Not just any god will do as the ultimate source of constitutional order.”
Had Reilly discussed this rich history with the attention it deserves, it would undermine his overall purpose of portraying America as a nation wedded to timeless credos. In his last chapter, he takes aim at German historicism—a modern version of nominalism, in his view—for denying that there are such ahistorical principles. “Gone are the tenets that Nature and reason are not temporal and that they supply truths which are right everywhere and always,” he writes.
If America, however, rests on traditions that are time-bound—the Bible, the Enlightenment, and Calvinism—then America’s example turns out to be universal only in a moral sense, not an historical one. Yet Americans need not despair over this fact. If anything, America’s unique synthesis of these traditions testifies to the admirable originality and dynamism of its culture.
above: Detail of John Trumbull’s painting, Declaration of Independence, depicting the five-man drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress. The original hangs in the U.S. Capitol rotunda (public domain).